Words by Zeena Koda. Photography by Sheena She.
When things are good, do we even recognize it? We spend our lifetime remodeling the clay of our daily intentions and rarely see our current silhouette in a favorable light. There was an odd moment in my 20s where I acutely recognized that I was living in my “glory days.” It was a time-stamp I could look back upon with fond regard; my career was in sync, passions were running high off of relentless inspiration, and the “fuck you, I’ll do what I want” attitude fit like a glove. I even looked like a million bucks and was in the best shape of my life. Sure, I was a broke, morally questionable human sauntering through life on an artistic (and many times literal) high but this was it. I was living as a single 20-something in NYC and nothing was going to get in the way of what I was put on this god-forsaken earth to do: be an emotional rebel, at all costs.
Here’s the problem: value comes from within, and all the cockiness in the world cannot mask a rotten soul. This version of me could not accept the magnitude of a genuinely good thing. For every wild night spent sifting through countless men who had little to offer me, there was a night where I would cry myself to sleep, deeply muddled in emptiness. (Most were outright unwilling to offer me much, but sex appeal can sell you the clothes off of your own back.) I had resigned to a life as a depressive, emotional junkie.
Damage makes you resilient, but it also creates a version of you that’s fueled by protective reactions.
The common thread that seams together the many versions of ourselves is time. When I think about the vision I had for my future then versus the reality I’m currently living, I cringe at my naivety. You outline a fairy-tale that seems on-par with the indicators you’ve ascribed to “success” and any variation that is deemed a failure. Dating this shit bag who looks good on my arm would indicate a perfect relationship; achieving XYZ level of notoriety will validate the years of struggle and my personal favorite failure, “If I look aesthetically good, it will all fall into place and life will pan out like a romantic comedy ‘happily ever after’ closing scene.”
I’m unafraid to admit that I, too, fall into traps of perception, because I’m fucking human. Damage makes you resilient, but it also creates a version of you that’s fueled by protective reactions. For me, protection meant learning how to disassociate my actions from feelings, and ironically turned my numero uno genuine lifeblood into the enemy. Nobody moves, nobody gets hurt.
I remember a time where I had a reserve of men I’d use as play-things–never toying with emotions. I’d use them for companionship or sexual gratification when needed, then toss them off my plate like the bone of a wing when conquered. There were strict unofficial rules: no holding hands, no sleeping over, no kissing hello or goodbye, no meeting friends, etc. It was cold to say the least, but in retrospect that version of me was dishing out everything that I was given back by the one or two rarities I invested my heart in.
Those few I ascribed my love to never loved me enough; they didn’t give me a fighting chance, and it created a version of me that could not accept that love was real.
There were always a few who came close, either by virtue of remaining interested enough to play the game, or existing in their perceived glory. I’d make excuses for why they failed to commit and give a second chance, and the vicious cycle would begin again. The few people who ended up holding my attention had to fit the mold of an artistic jock with a past in music, impeccable musical taste, and equally handsome swagger and style. I wanted it all and no less because the picture frame needed to be complete. I needed to have the “good on paper, but freak in the sheets” anomaly because in my mind, my love life only made sense in a storybook form. If you didn’t fall into that category you became a toy; although that’s probably a common way of thinking for most, I refused to settle for any less, even after becoming nauseated by family consistently asking me when I’d be getting married. Those few I ascribed my love to never loved me enough, at that time; they didn’t give me a fighting chance, and it created a version of me that could not accept that love was real. I’d come to find out the two that always felt like “what ifs…” did have genuine love for me, but never enough to fulfill me in the way that real love can.
You question if this level of loneliness is unique to you, or is everyone else living in a pit of despair?
It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing shortcomings are selective. You begin to question if this level of loneliness is unique to you, or is everyone else living in a pit of despair? Despite the advances and intentions of others, if I can’t have what I specifically want than I’ll have nothing at all. Depression begins to settle in and become a norm, almost substituting a relationship. The love of my life became despair and I was no longer proud of that version of me; it became too good to be bad. There was beauty in being hurt by perpetuating my limbo of non-committal question marks of “maybe we could be” rather than facing what was not right within. As much as it pained me to depart from thriving on the pain of uncertainty, I realized the value of letting go to move on literally and figuratively.
Moving myself cross country, with little to hold on to, seemed like a daunting, yet liberating task, but despite apprehension, I did it; this, inherently, created a new version of me. This new version of me had no one to please and no standards other than my own to uphold. I expected a new sea of play-things to dive into, and who had less knowledge of me than those carcasses I left behind. I stepped up to the plate and decided to give this game my all, finding that it was not at all what I expected.
I found a man…
I’d have to evolve into a new version of me that was honest, open to change, and willing to invest in the happiness of someone else.
A man who so willingly gave me his heart, time, and soul. This truly frightened me to my core. For months I resisted the melting of the ice caps on my heart and resisted the commitment because I wasn’t equipped to understand what it takes to give love back. Eventually, a version of myself that understood this level of sacrifice rose from the ashes like a mummified phoenix and regenerated into the woman I am today. My world changed the day I let him hold my hand without resistance. Of course, as many have found before me, he did not come in the perfect package I had so carefully outlined years before. In some ways he was even better than the “dream lover” I had formulated in my head. But, I knew that I’d have to evolve into a new version of me that was honest, open to change, and willing to invest in the happiness of someone else.
The breakthrough is glorious.
Lest we never forget that it’s work you must be willing to do, and God knows there are some days that will test you. This version of me says “I love you” multiple times a day, deletes potentially salacious situations from inception, holds a motherfucker’s hand, and thanks the universe every day for being able to be present with my partner. Some days I wonder how this all happened to me and if it will work out, but one thing is for certain: there is no greater high than waking up in the arms of a human who I adore, every single morning. To finally have a love that is an ally, not a vulture.
Finding real love has inspired me to be the greatest version of me that I can be–not just for me, but for us.